Bestiaries are one of the main sources for understanding the symbolic meaning of animals. They reveal the symbolism of these creatures as well as their positive and negative powers. The portrayals refer to these powers and in many cases they serve to symbolise human virtues and defects.
In animal iconography, it’s accepted that the animals have a theological meaning. However, some authors like Dorothy and Henry Kraus discuss the role played by animals in the daily lives of Medieval people, which is the reason why they are so often included in scenes of everyday life.
Let’s take a look at art as history in the most commonly used figure in gargoyles in the real animal category, the lion.
In some cultures of Antiquity, the lion possessed divine attributes. In Egypt, for example, the goddess Sekhet has a lion’s head; in Tibet people have been worshipping the Ka-gro-Mha, lion-headed goddesses, for millennia; in Syria the lion is a divine figure; in Persia the lion was one of the animals featured in the worship of the sun god Mitra; in Assyria, the god of courage in war was a lion centaur; and in Greece, four lions pull the chariot of the goddess Cybele, mother of the gods, at a gallop.
The lion’s qualities are royalty, vigilance, strength, justice and courage. These qualities led the lion to feature on Roman legion insignia (strength and courage) as well as on the porches of law courts. Remember that Solomon’s throne in the Hall of Justice stood at the top of six steps guarded by twelve lions.
The lion, king of earthly animals, was adopted by Christian iconography as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the symbol of Christ. In Christian art, it became an emblem of Jesus Christ and the resurrection. In his great work Religious Art in France in the Thirteenth-Century (1899), Émile Mâle states that in the Middle Ages it was widely believed that the lioness gave birth to lions that seemed to be still born. For three days they showed no signs of life, but on the third day the lion returned and breathed life into them – the lion as a symbol of the resurrected Christ and also as author of our own future resurrection.
The lion is referred to 152 times in the Bible. One passage used to symbolise Christ and his sacrifice is the death of the lion that Samson defeated in the vineyards of Timna. In the same way that the lion died at Samson’s hands, Christ died at the hands of men.
It’s said that the lion never closes its eyes, even when sleeping, so it is also an emblem of vigilance, which is why it appears in tombs, on buildings and on doors as a doorknocker. This also conveys the idea of the lion as the image of Christ watching over and guarding our souls.
The visions of both St John (Ap. 5, 5) and of Ezequiel involve the appearance of the lion of the tetramorph, St Mark being the lion, in the vision of Yahveh’s chariot (Ez. 1, 4-13).
As for its negative powers, the lion can be shown as a symbol of arrogance or of the anti-Christ; or as a roaring lion or demon, snatching souls. The symbols of the lion and the serpent are often mixed up in a single symbol; Hesiod compares it to the diabolic typhoon (Theogony, V. 833), St Ambrose develops this idea on his Hexameron (VI, c. 4), and St Jerome in his Commentary on the Psalms (XVI, 12). St Peter says: “Be sober and watch; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” (1st Epistle, C.V., 8).
Art in history with the king of land animals. With its amazing symbolism since Ancient times, it’s not surprising that the lion is portrayed so often, not only in gargoyles, but also in all the arts.
Temple of Apollo (part of the marble sima), 4th century BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Greece). Image 1.
Astorga Cathedral (Spain). Image 2.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 3.
León Cathedral (Spain). Image 4.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 5.
Ávila Cathedral (Spain). Image 6.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 7.
Sevilla Cathedral (Spain). Image 8.
Palencia Cathedral (Spain). Image 9.
CHARBONNEAU-LASSAY, L., El bestiario de Cristo. El simbolismo animal en la Antigüedad y la Edad Media, vol. I, Palma de Mallorca, José J. de Olañeta Editor, 1997.
DE PINEDO, DOM. R., El simbolismo en la escultura medieval española, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, S. A., 1930.
GRIVOT, D., Le diable dans la cathedrale, Paris, Editions Morel, 1960.
REBOLD BENTON, J., Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
VILLASEÑOR SEBASTIÁN, F., Iconografía marginal en Castilla. 1454-1492, Madrid, CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), 2009.